Cartoon: Idea cage for keeping captured ideas so that they cannot get away

Don't Capture Ideas - Play With Them

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Businesses could learn an awful lot about how to be more creative by looking at how creative professionals−  such as artists, composers, authors and comedians − treat ideas. There is a huge difference and it involves play.

In business, one captures ideas with suggestion schemes, idea management and brainstorms that ensure no idea gets away. In fact, the very concept of capturing ideas reminds me of my childhood and capturing spiders, caterpillars and lightning bugs in jars. One had to be sure to punch holes in the jars so the captive arthropods and insects could survive. But they never did for very long.

Lucky captured ideas are put through a funnel that typically leads to further definition, evaluation, approval and so on. Each step squeezes creativity out of the idea − that's why it is called a funnel (or in creative problem solving/brainstorming it is the convergent phase following the brief divergent phase). By the time the resultant idea has been pushed all the way through the funnel and implemented, it is inevitably a dull shadow of a once sparklingly creative idea. This is why so many corporate ideas are boring: they are captured against their will and shoved down a tunnel to squeeze out creativity!

Play With Ideas

People who are creative for a living, such as artists, composers and authors, do not talk about capturing ideas. They play with ideas instead.

For instance, imagine Michael buys a car which he quickly discovers is falling apart. He takes it back to the dealer to complain. As he does so, pieces actually fall off the car. However, the dealer absurdly denies anything is wrong with the car and refuses to take Michael seriously.

Although frustrated by his experience, Michael is also inspired. How he works with that inspiration depends on whether he is a businessman or a creative professional such as a comedian.

Michael the businessman captures from the experience some ideas about quality control and customer service which he submits to his company's idea management software. Of those ideas, one customer service idea is selected, toned down (cost projections suggest that Michael's original idea would be too generous to customers and so too expensive to implement) and implemented as an additional paragraph in the corporate customer service manual.

Michael the comedian plays with his experience and develops it into an idea for a comedy sketch. He shares his idea with his comic team and they all play with the idea, bouncing it around, making it more absurd and funnier.

Eventually, one of the team members says something like: "wouldn't it be funny if instead of it being a car, it was a pet that was falling apart and brought back to the pet shop where the shopkeeper refused to acknowledge there was anything wrong with the animal?" Through further idea play, the animal becomes a dead parrot and the group build a comedy sketch around the idea.

That is how Monty Python's most famous routine, The Parrot Sketch (YouTube video here), was born from Michael Palin's experience with a garage.

Business Play

Of course Michael the businessman and Michael the comedian have very different objectives when it comes to creativity, nevertheless, it should be clear that capturing ideas and pushing them through a funnel is always going to be less creative than discovering ideas and playing with them.

Because creativity is the food of innovation, if want your business − or teams − to be more creative you should stop focusing on capturing ideas and shoving them down a funnel. Instead, relearn how to play with them. I use the term "relearn" because you used to play with ideas all the time, didn't you, when you were a child.

So, how can you play when are grown-up, respected businessperson in a dreary office? There are a few things you should do, but one of the first is to get out of the office and into a more relaxed environment. You are always going to feel stifled and easily distracted in your office environment. Get away from it and find a more suitable place. A hotel meeting room will do, but a little research will inevitably turn up more inspiring meeting spaces.


One of the most obvious ways to play with ideas is literally to play with them. If you are planning to update a product, bring several examples into your meeting-space and get the team to play with them. Imagine using the products. Do crazy things with the products. Have available markers, coloured paper, card, string and other things so people can modify the products.

Stack the products on top of each other. Pretend they are other things. Pretend they are people; talk to the products and imagine they talk back to you. Be kids again and go crazy! If you've forgotten how to do that, bring some kids to the meeting and let them play with the product. Or hire someone like me, who has failed to grow up, to help you lose your inhibitions.

If the product is an app, then bring everyone together to play with the app together. Pretend to use it correctly and incorrectly and talk about the experience. When you pretend to use it, is something missing? Is there a feature you would like to see added? Perhaps it is too complex. How might you simplify it.

You will be positively inspired with ideas and those ideas will be far more relevant and useful than ideas captured in a talking brainstorm or idea management tool.

Take your play inspired ideas to the designers and have them build some prototypes, even rough prototypes, and play with them.

As you play with the prototypes, you'll find that some of your ideas worked. Some did not. Maybe the integration of new features is confusing. No worries. Play some more, make notes and ask the designers to make new prototypes. Better still, ensure a designer is on the play team.


If you are tasked with developing a new product, then you can build prototypes yourself − through play, of course.

Bring to your meeting space whatever you need to build prototypes. Maybe you need craft materials like card, paper, foam and such things. Maybe a box of Lego building bricks or Meccano ('Erector' in US) construction sets. Perhaps modeling clay will work. Perhaps you just need a lot of paper and markers. Whatever you need, bring it to the meeting space.

Once you've got your materials, play with them like kids. Don't restrain yourself. Be silly. Be free. Working on mobile phone designs? Draw some buttons on your hand and pretend to use it to call your colleagues. Click on icons on the palm of your hand or your arm. How does that work?

Collaborate like kids to build a couple of models and then take them to the design team to create slicker prototypes. Absolutely do not stop at any committees to seek approval first. You and I both know they will kill your ideas and enthusiasm in an instant. But, when you have some decent prototypes to show top management, you are far more likely to get approval.

Role Play

I love role play. I use it often in my workshops and the results are inevitably awesome. Role play allows people to be someone new, they can drop their inhibitions and say and do things they would not in their usual employee persona. With this freedom of behaviour comes freedom of thinking and increased creativity.

Role play is simply acting out a scenario in which two or more people play defined roles. For role play to work, there needs to be conflict that is not easily resolvable. This can be done by explaining the situation and the conflict to everyone or by having public and secret information. Let's compare the two approaches.

Everyone Knows Everything

In a role play in which everyone knows everything, I recommend you switch roles so that people play roles that are different to their actual job responsibilities. For instance, let us imagine that your company is a chain of clothing shops in shopping malls around the country. Sales are down and you want to improve the way sales clerks interact with customers. Create a role play in which a sales clerk plays a difficult customer (and you can be sure your sales clerks have loads of experience with this kind of thing) and the CEO (or other senior manager) plays the sales clerk. Tell both sides not to take it seriously, to exaggerate their characters and to have fun. Then let the role play begin. In addition to the role-players, have a few people watch the performance.

Once it is finished, discuss it. What happened? Why did it happen. How did the customer actor feel? How did the sales clerk actor feel? Was it realistic? How could it have been better?

Do it again, incorporating ideas from the discussion. Then discuss again.

In this example, I've included the CEO or another senior manager. This would be very powerful as it would give top management a real sense of what it is like in their shops and the challenges sales clerks face. It would also allow opposite ends of the corporate hierarchy to interact in a safe way. You may think it would never work. I assure you it not only would work, but everyone would have a laugh and learn a lot.

Secret Information

I prefer secret information role plays in which there is shared information and secret information. For example, let us imagine your company, Zuperclean, makes robot vacuum cleaners. Your biggest competitor is Dustfree. You want to specify the next generation Zuperclean X100 robot vacuum cleaner, your top product. So, we create a role play to identify areas for improvement In this role play, you have a customer coming into an electronics shop to buy a robot vacuum cleaner and a sales clerk. This is the shared information.

The customer actor is secretly informed that her best friend has recently bought a Dustfree M300 and is delighted with it. Moreover, another friend recently bought a Zuperclean X80 (a different, lower specification Zuperclean robot vacuum cleaner than the 100) which she says is loud and which once knocked over and broke an antique floor lamp. So, the customer has decided to go to the shop and buy a Dustfree M300. She might consider other products, but she does not wish to buy any Zuperclean products.

The sales clerk actor is secretly informed that she has sold 49 Zuperclean X100s this month. If she sells one more, she will win a fully paid trip to Paris for herself and her partner as part of an (imaginary) incentive scheme by Zuperclean. It is the last day of the month and the sales clerk is desperate to sell one more X100. The sales clerk is also a compulsive liar and has no qualms about exaggerating about, or even making up, features in order to make a sale.

As you can see, the secret information creates a conflict between a sales clerk who desperately wants to sell a Zuperclean product, and will lie to make the sale, and a customer who much prefers a competing product.

Let the role play begin. In this case, there might be no resolution and the customer actor might leave the shop. That's okay. When it is finished, discuss it. What happened. What product weaknesses were identified? What benefits of the competing product were mentioned by the customer? What did the sales clerk say to make the Zuperclean X100 sound more desirable? What did she lie about?

You can and should do this role play more than once with different people in order to get more information and ideas.

Prototyping Role Play

As you develop ideas, you can test them through Role Play. In the first role play example above, in which the aim was to improve the customer experience in their clothing shops, once you have developed ideas, play with them by having role-playing sales clerks interact with role-playing customers of all kinds. In protoyping role play, it is often not necessary to create conflict as you want to play with ideas in a variety of scenarios.

In such a role play, you may find that ideas that sounded good in a workshop are awkward in practice. You may also find that ideas that sounded silly in a workshop actually work very well. As always, discuss afterwards and use that information to try again.

Dance Role Play

You can take role play one step further and turn it into a movement based performance, based on the language of dance, using a process called Dynamic Problem Solving (DPS). In dynamic problem solving, you create performances in which participants imitate other people, objects and even abstract concepts. However, people are not allowed to speak, other than to make abstract sounds.

DPS can be very powerful at identifying subtle issues, emotional issues and stress-points that may not be clear in a role play or other activity based on spoken word. For example, Zuperclean could set up a DPS scenario in which one person plays a new, humanoid robot cleaner, another person plays the homeowner and another person plays a playful cat. Start with the homeowner turning on the robot and introducing the house. The robot gets on with cleaning while a playful cat wants to interact in her own way. It may seem a simple scenario, but you'd be surprised at what you can discover in DPS. I wrote in some depth about DPS in the article Got a Problem? Dance!

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




My other web projects

My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey

Just Play

These are just a few of the ways you can play with situations and ideas. There are many more ways you can play with ideas if you simply allow yourself to be playful.

The main point is that if you really want to be creative don't capture ideas and strip them of their originality. Instead, find them and play with them.